Fearing Who Are Different | “Zoot Suit” at Mark Taper Forum

Zoot Suit (Mark Taper Forum)Where were you from mid-August to the beginning of October, 1978? Me? I was in my second year as a Junior Counselor up at Gindling Hilltop Camp (FB), followed by starting my Sophmore year at UCLA. I wasn’t the avid theatre-goer back then, although I do remember seeing another Center Theatre Group (FB) show at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), They’re Playing Our Song with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz (FB). I recall that I knew about a new show called Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB), but I certainly hadn’t been to the Mark Taper Forum, nor was I going to go up to the Mutual Ticketing Window at the Student Union to get full price tickets for it (for there was no notion of discount tickets back then). I even didn’t get tickets after it moved to the Aquarius Theatre. However, I do remember the El Pachuco ads all around the city. I later learned of the significance of the production — for its message, for its impact on Chicano theatre, and for its impact on the œuvre of the Los Angeles centered play. I am still sorry I missed the original production.

So when I learned that Center Theatre Group (FB) was celebrating its 50th anniversary by remounting Zoot Suit, I had to get tickets. We were able to fit one of the preview performances into our schedule, and so last night saw us at the Mark Taper, bookmarked and interspersed with a series of what can be best called “adventures”.

Zoot Suit is a dramatized retelling of the incidents surrounding the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Names were changed, and some events altered slightly, but what strikes me in reading the linked Wikipedia pages is how much of the truth of what happened made it into the show. Note: If you are curious where the Sleepy Lagoon was, wonder no longer — this website has the answer.

A good summary is from the ABC-CLIO website on the show:

A work of historical fiction, Zoot Suit follows two significant stories of racial injustice in Los Angeles from the 1940s. Set in the streets of East Los Angeles, Zoot Suit recounts events of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case and the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. These incidents became symbolic of the racial injustice against Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and across the country during this time period. The play follows Henry Reyna and members of the predominantly Mexican American 38th Street Gang, who were wrongly accused and convicted of murder. The play also treats incidents from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, where racial tensions escalated into violent confrontations between zoot suit–wearing pachucos, U.S. servicemen, and Los Angeles law enforcement. The play is set against actual testimony from the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and press headlines from the 1940s, recounting these historical events through the eyes of a group of Mexican American youth. At the center of Zoot Suit is the character El Pachuco, an idealized zoot suiter played memorably by Olmos during the play’s (original) Los Angeles run.

I think the saddest thing about Zoot Suit is that it is again relevant. The unjustified racial animosity against Mexicans, Filipinos, Blacks, and other non-whites during the 1940s has sadly seen a resurgence today, and the techniques and biases and riots that were seen then, built out of a fear of xenophobia, has infested our society today. Back then, it was the zoot suit that tarred many hard-working men unjustifiably as dangerous; today, it is the hijab, the beard, and the hoodie. Almost 75 years later, and white society is still fearful of the stranger that is coming to attack their privilege. Back then, they registered Japanese and Hispanics; today, it is Muslims. Reading the history, leaders like Ceser Chavez and Malcom X were zoot suiters. Will we ever learn from history? Our leaders today want extreme vetting and bans to keep out muslims, and they want a wall to keep out, yes, the Mexicans.

Back in December, Donald Trump complained that theatre should not make one uncomfortable. He is wrong. Although there are times theatre is an escape, theatre at its heart makes one uncomfortable. It speaks truth to power, it dramatizes messages that must be heard, and be heard, and be heard again until they sink into our thick skulls. What makes our country great is not the top 1% with all the money. What makes our country great are the immigrants, the workers, and those who struggle everyday; they are the ones who work the hardest to make a better life. They don’t want to keep people out to protect the life they have.

So, do I think you should see Zoot Suit? Hell yes. See it. Talk about it. Learn from it.

One other thought related to the overall show. Two weeks ago, we saw another Hispanic production, the Dual Language version of Disney’s Aladdin at Casa 0101 in East LA.  Very different, but very similar. Both tell a story of Love. Both tell a story of class and non-acceptance. Both have elements of intolerance. Both mesmerize, but in different ways. Zoot Suit was the start of Chicano theatre in Los Angeles; looking back at intolerance of Pachuco culture in our city. Aladdin is where Chicano theatre is today, building upon dual language while still demonstrating how lack of understanding between cultural groups can divide. A cartoon going around Facebook this week showed Jasmine and Aladdin on the carpet, noting that “I can show you the world… well, except the United States.” Speaking truth to power, have we come that far and grown. Alas, perhaps not.

The realization of the show by author and director Luis Valdez (FB) had a very newspaper-ish esthetic: stacks of newspapers served as chairs, tables, and beds; there was lots of emphasis on the headlines of the day and newspaper reporters; there was projection on to Venetian blinds. Looking back at some original production photos, however, and it appears this was much like the original conception. It still worked.  Valdez also gave the show a very authentic Chicano and Pachuco feel; one got the impression that the feel of the show was the feel of the original. I’ll note here that the show was co-produced with El Teatro Campesino (FB), Valdez’s theatre company. ETC was also the birthplace of Culture Clash, who we saw at VPAC back in November — in many ways unknowingly preparing us for Zoot Suit and introducing us to the music of Lalo Guerrero, who composed much of Zoot Suit‘s original music. Alas, there is no CD of Zoot Suit, and the movie soundtrack is only available on vinyl. Pity.

Leading us through the Zoot Suit dramatization was El Pachuco, played originally by Edward James Olmos (FB), and here by Demian Bichir (FB). El Pachuco is perhaps the alter-ego of the lead character and “leader” of the gang, Henry Reyna. He eggs Henry on, pushes him in various directions, spreads the Pachuco way, and provides a little clarity to the audience.  Bichir channels the character well, embodying the style and attitude that is so important in the Pachuco culture.

Playing the lead character, Henry Reyna, and his girlfriend Della Barrios were Daniel Valdez (FB) and Rose Portillo (FB), respectively. Wait, strike that. Those were who played those roles in the original 1978 production. In this production, Valdez and Portillo provided interesting continuity with the past by playing the parents of Henry Renya, Enrique Reyna and Dolores Reyna. It was an interesting nod to the original and a passing of the torch; I’m sure it was astoundingly meaningful to the acting ensemble.

Let’s try this again, in this production, playing the lead character, Henry Reyna, and his girlfriend Della Barrios were Matias Ponce (FB) and Jeanine Mason (FB), respectively. Ponce is on-stage for almost the entire show and he has the presence to carry it off. His portrayal captures well the opposing natures of Henry: leadership and violence, family and love, the tormented conflict of one under constant attack by “the man”. Mason’s role is smaller, yet she is still quite fun to watch and shines in her scenes at the conclusion of the story.

The remainder of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants and the key gang members we see are Ismael “Smiley’ Torres (Raul Cardona (FB), also: u/s El Pachuco), Joey Castro (Oscar Camacho), and Tommy Roberts (Caleb Foote (FB)). They embodied their characters well, bringing distinct personalities to what could have been cookie-cutter portrayals. Their individual moments during the jail sequences were great.

Rounding out the Reyes family were Stephani Candelaria (FB) as Lupe Reyna and Andres Ortiz (FB) as Rudy Reyna. Candelaria’s Lupe was fun to watch, especially in her initial scenes with the family before the first dance. Ortiz’s Rudy showed the power of drink to change a personality, with the actor handily capturing the transformation from kid wannabe to dangerously hot-tempered drinker.

Rounding out the lead characters were Brian Abraham (FB) as Henry’s attorney, George Shearer, and Tiffany Dupont (FB) as Alice Bloomfield, head of the committee that was arranging for the legal defense of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants.  Abraham’s Shearer was a typical grizzled attorney who cared about his clients deeply, and came across well. Dupont’s Bloomfield captured the style of the era well and had great chemistry and humor with all four of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, but especially with Ponce’s Henry.

Rounding out the cast in various roles were: Mariela Arteaga [La Pachuca Hoba, u/s Bertha Villareal]; Melinna Bobadilla (FB) [Bertha Villareal, u/s Dolores Reyna]; Fiona Cheung (FB) [La Pachuca Manchuka]; Holly Hyman (FB) [La Pachuca Lil Blue]; Kimberlee Kidd [Dance Captain, Guera, u/s Alice Bloomfield]; Rocío López (FB) [Elena Tores, u/s Della Barios / Lupe Reyna]; Tom G. McMahon [Press]; Michael Naydoe Pinedo (FB) [Ragman / Cub Reporter / Sailor , u/s Rafas / Marine , u/s Joey Castro , u/s Sergeant Smith / Baliff / Bosun’s Mate]; Gilbert Saldivar (FB) [Rafas / Marine, u/s Enrique Reyna / Ismael ‘Smiley’ Torres]; Richard Steinmetz (FB) [Lt. Edwards / Judge F.W. Charles / Prison Guard]; Evan Strand (FB) [Swabbie, u/s Tommy Roberts / Cub Reporter]; Bradford Tatum (FB) [Sergeant Smith / Boson’s Mate / Baliff, u/s George Shearer / Press / Lt. Edwards / Judge F.W. Charles / Prison Guard]; and Raphael Thomas (FB) [Dance Captain / Newsboy, u/s Swabbie]. All were strong dancers and performers. I want to highlight Bobadilla’s Bertha Villareal, who was a standout in her scenes.

Turning to the music and movement side: Daniel Valdez (FB) was the music director, with choreography by Maria Torres (FB). The movement and dance was strong, with what seemed to be (at least to me) period appropriate dance. Hand in hand with the movement was the fight direction of Steve Rankin (FB). With respect to music, it appears to have been pre-recorded, as there are no credits for musicians.

The scenic design, which I mentioned previously and worked quite well, was by Christopher Acebo. It was complemented by the projection design of David Murakami (FB) and the lighting design of Pablo Santiago. I particularly appreciated the latter’s use of red lighting in a few scenes to create a very ominous tone. Murakami’s projections provided the news backdrop, especially when projected against the Venetian blinds. The sound design was by Philip G. Allen. At the preview performance there were numerous sound problems, including some very bad computer-created static in Act I and some very low microphones — all of which I presume will be ironed out by opening, as will some overly loud sound effects. <rant> What won’t be ironed out was the static caused by cellphones!!! People — please — put your phones in airplane mode or turn them off during a show. You can focus your attention for something live for three hours instead of your silly screens! </rant> The costume design of Ann Closs-Farley and the wig design of Jessica Mills (FB) worked together to recreate the 1940s — the costumers were just fantastic for both the ladies and the gents (credit also goes to El Pachuco Zoot Suits in Fullerton for the wonderful suits). Rounding out the credits were David S. Franklin – Production Stage Manager; Neel Keller – Associate Artistic Director; and Phillip Esparza — Executive Producer / El Teatro Campesino. Michelle Blair and Susie Walsh were the stage managers.

Zoot Suit continues at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) through March 19. Tickets are available through the CTG website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. Don’t miss this show this time.

: Such as, you ask: We had a relatively bad dinner at Black Bottom Southern Cuisine at Vineland and Cabrillo in NoHo: it may have been takeout hipster, but it wasn’t great Q (the BarBeQue Bar up the street is much better) or good Southern, and they used too much MSG. My wife left her purse on the Metro when we got off at Civic Center; luckily Metro security nabbed it and had it at Union Station for pickup, but we had to go back in and ride one stop to Union Station and back to pick it up before the show (this left my wife’s knee in pain); the preview audience was poor — arriving late (stand up to let them in) both for the show and after intermission (ouch! that was my toe!), leaving early, and using their cell phones; coming back the Metro accelerated harder than usual throwing us across the train because we hadn’t sat down yet; and then driving back we drove through a cloud of burning rubber on the freeway. Good show around a bad evening.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: February 2017 continues with the Manhattan Transfer at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on February 9th, followed by 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB) over the weekend. The third weekend brings Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (FB) on Friday, February 17, with seeing Allegiance – A New Musical (recorded on Broadway) at the AMC Promenade on Sun 2/19. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month. April starts with Cats Paw at Actors Co-op (FB) and a concert with Tom Paxton and the DonJuans at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB) (shifting Cats Paws to an afternoon matinee that day, or the Sunday matinee the weekend before). The next day brings the Colburn Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The next weekend is currently open (and will likely stay that way). Mid-April brings Animaniacs Live at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB). That will be followed on the penultimate weekend of April with Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB). As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

P.S.: Mostly so I can find it later, here’s my predictions of what will go on tour and where they will end up. The Hollywood Pantages (FB) announces February 7th.